“Today men’s nerves surround us; they have gone outside as electrical environment. The human nervous system itself can be reprogrammed biologically as readily as any radio network can alter its fare.” These were the first words uttered by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan in his “Notes on Burroughs.” McLuhan saw William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as a “private strategy of culture in the electric age... Burroughs is unique only in that he is attempting to reproduce in prose what we accommodate every day as a commonplace aspect of life in the electric age.” Something quite similar could be said of The New Deal: they are unique only in that they reproduce in a live context what we accommodate everyday as a commonplace aspect of life in the electronic age. In hindsight it seems quite reasonable to say such a thing, but such sentiments don’t just leap from one’s mind fully armed like Athena from Zeus’ head. Whether we intend to or not, we are always protecting ourselves from incongruity, from the shock of otherness. Coming up with coherent narratives (such as the continuity of self and place) allows us to function in a fundamental way. But then there are those occasions when we are confronted with the spectra of the other, we experience duende, we are possessed.

Arriving at the Opera House it was clear within moments that something was afoot. The New Deal’s self-promoted "Sound and Light New Year" was apparently well underway. Midnight soon approached with “Auld Lang Syne” introduced in segments at the top of each phrase in the context of house thumps until the final hour struck. The crowd was feverish as sentiment and memory flooded into huge lapping waves. In their first set the band played on for at least another forty-five minutes, riddling the crowd with beats and patterns. After acknowledging the strong presence of upstate New York heads and people from as far away as Florida, drummer Darren Shearer called for a set break and let the impeccable DJ Denise Benson hold things down for a stretch. The placid and sedated setting backstage during the lengthy set break was the counterpoint to the mayhem on the floor and in the balcony. Canadian Blues Rock icon Gordie Johnson of the band Big Sugar laid in wait in the Opera House’s basement.

Having promised something special in the second set, the band faded back into Denise’s eclectic psychelectro mix. It’s worth noting that many were likely oblivious to the fact that the band had actually rejoined the stage. Likewise when Gordie emerged with his dramatic double-necked guitar, there were certainly people in the crowd who were completely unaware of his presence on stage. Partly because The Deal so closely mimic the sounds of the dance floor, and partly because the instruments so completely meshed with one another. During the break I remarked to bass player Dan Kurtz how the fluidity with which the band was meshing reminded me of something like Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Therein you can here lives lived and lost, emotions transferred across space within the squelched together tones of all the instruments. In Flamenco music and Gypsy culture this phenomena is known as duende. The word is used to describe the trance-like fixation, the haunting feeling one may experience while enjoying a Flamenco performance. Duende is an inner spirit, which is released as a result of a performer’s intense emotional involvement with the music, song and dance. Experiencing duende is a matter of seeing through the showy display and realizing at a deeper level that you are witnessing emotional content potent enough to be transmitted across space. “There are those who believe that duende is essentially a demon, which the performers themselves inwardly summon upon in order to grace the venue with a special ‘spiritual’ quality. This quality, when it arrives, casts a spell over the audience and everyone becomes involved.”

Talking about the performance in these terms is an abstraction without doubt. But in some ways the performance demands that treatment. At the time, what was demanded was that you turned your feet or at least your ears to the proceeding. Without songs, lyrics, progressions or any reference points in time it is tempting to try and block out much of the sonic onslaught. Kitschy radio songs (Michael Jackson, etc.) were referenced throughout but this does not provide much release. Recognizing something out of the wash of sound is a comfort but without meaningful lyrical content or sustenance it is hard to know what to make of these interludes but that they are titillating. The band actually really echoes Burroughs efforts to rub out the tyranny of the word, words being the instruments of control. That, or they are just trying to rattle your brain and move your ass. Regardless there seems to be no indication whether these teases are toyed with ironically, tossed out as a lark, or whether they hold some erstwhile significance in a depraved eighties kind of way. It doesn’t really seem to matter.

The scene might come into focus if one had a better sense that the gathered crowd was actually drawn from quite different stocks. There was the strong American contingent really holding it down, a gaggle of Canadian heads and what seemed to be a motley crew of post-rave suburbanite and dyed-in-the-wool scenesters. In Toronto we have the equivalent of the New York Bridge and Tunnel crowd called sometimes the “905ers” for their suburban dialing code. The 905ers were out in full effect, crowding the apparently eternally hip 416ers. All this is worthy of note as a quick scan of the crowd would bear it out. Yet distinctions of class, awareness and status seemed not to matter as everyone absorbed the proceedings. The night wasn’t without its pretension, with the lobby seeming at times like fashionistas waiting for tables in a restaurant - disaffected bourgeois faces a stunning counterpoint to the orgiastic proceedings. Still, the band fused those distinctions, ceaseless in their pursuit of a maddening moment. There was something very impressive about their ability to unite people from such different sets of circumstance, even if that meant at times pandering to the lowest common denominator.

But this is precisely where it gets interesting. Dance music is known to be mawkish and sappy, the idiom is defined by naïve idealism. In their references The New Deal seem unwilling to stray far from radio detritus just as soon remembered as forgotten. Yet those snippets conjure up memories of driving as a child in a car on a country road on that day we knew. Moreover, they are evoked with such effortless craftsmanship that the point if you like seems to be more about the fluidity of the artifice than any specific reference. Crazy Horse has a song like that, about a woman in the TV sky rolling up in a white wheeled limousine seemingly caught up with all the trappings of materialism: “And when the music started she just slipped away.” It says something about the basic goodness of the human spirit, about the intrinsic need to feel good, but also about the ability of music to erode our deep seeded senses of our self.

The evening was full of shockingly intricate, psychedelic and indeed heartwarming nuances. One dared not close one’s eyes for fear of losing oneself all together. I had a moment like this when I closed my eyes and lost myself in the swirling eddies of sound; my whole consciousness just seemed to shrink away like an old television turned off after a long night - a single dot of cathode ray colors. Then just as suddenly it all came flooding back and the words “Music Box” came to mind. My subconscious had immediately found the perfect metaphor for what had just taken place, I had been the tiny ballerina tucked inside the music box dancing its concentric dance of the spheres, its dance of duty, love and obligation, waiting in vain for the moment the latch will fly open and the other world shines in.

Luke Bowden
JamBase | Canada
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 1/5/03]

Take full advantage of all JamBase has to offer by signing up for an account!

You'll receive

show alerts

when your favorite artists announce shows, be eligible to enter contests for

free tickets

, gain the ability to

share your personalized live music calendar

and much more. Join JamBase!